Imagine an exploitative fishery...

Pepineros in boat Fleets of dive boats roam the ocean shallows, their divers sweeping the bottom for sea cucumbers, lobsters, starfish, and any other marine species that could be sold on the international market.

Pepino Camp and supplies Stacks of propane bottles, drying racks, processing tanks, camping equipment, and food are stockpiled in sprawling illegal fishing camps on remote islands in one of the world's most pristine nature parks.

makeshift huts in mangrove lagoon Makeshift huts hide in mangrove lagoons, where sea cucumbers (pepinos de mar) are processed for the Asian food market by fishermen who call themselves "pepineros". Their methods threaten the ecological and social integrity of these fragile islands

Now Imagine that fishery...
in the Galápagos.

A key moment for conservation

When the President of Ecuador signed the "Special Law for Galapagos" on March 6,1998, the world conservation community joined progressive Galapagos islanders in a great sigh of relief. The law mandated restrictions on exotic species, immigration, and commercial fisheries, further strengthening the protection of this special archipelago that the 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin described as a living laboratory of evolution. Most controversially, the new law expands a ban on industrial fishing from 24 to 64 km around the coastlines of the Galapagos. The ban capped a fractious debate that pitted conservation and ecotourism interests against a powerful commercial fisheries lobby in continental Ecuador.

Why be concerned over fisheries?

Whalers, fur seal hunters, and fishermen have all taken a turn harvesting the marine bounty of the Galapagos since the islands' discovery in 1535. The dizzying wealth of sea life, nurtured by the nutrient-rich upwelling of deep ocean currents as they reach Galapagos, gave the mistaken impression that this wealth was inexhaustible. First whalers, then seal hunters, and now various waves of fishermen have discovered that the islands' marine life is finite.

When boredom with sea rations drove the fishermen ashore, they feasted on tortoise populations so numerous that the shells remaining from the carnage resembled fields of tumbled boulders. The fishermen's inquilines accompanied them onto the fragile islands: 3 species of rats, cockroaches, aggressive stinging ants, a wide variety of spiders, hundreds of aggressive plants, cats, dogs, voracious goats, pigs that snuffle up the eggs of Galapagos' diverse reptile populations, and a myriad of other organisms whose numbers mount in parallel to the explosion in the islands' human population.

Image of pepinero camp. In 1992 on Fernandina, one of the largest islands of the world which was still free of exotic pests, and where sea cucumber fishermen had set up uncontrolled camps, a scientist reported possible sightings of an aggressive predator of Galapagos fauna, the black rat. This event sparked alarm and controversy, as ensuing efforts to control the fishermen's activities stirred up social and political unrest in this normally peaceful archipelago

This site.

This site documents first-hand experiences and views of the troubled period in Galapagos from 1992-1996. It serves to remind us of how vigilant we must be, if the treasured natural wonders of the world are to endure.

Historical perspective.

The creation of Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation's Research Station in 1959 marked a positive turning point in Galapagos conservation history. Approximately 97% of the land mass of Galapagos was included in the National Park, although significant portions of this area had been strongly modified by human activities. Intensive scientific research guided the Park's diligent efforts to control noxious exotic organisms and to rehabilitate populations of Galapagos' unique native animals and plants through captive breeding and other protection programs. A succession of Park management plans, crafted by national and international experts, strove to permit human access to the Park for conservation, research, and tourism, while controlling exploitation of biological and mineral resources.

In the 1980's and early 1990's, the capacity to manage development in Galapagos was outstripped by explosive growth of tourism to the islands. Increased tourism brought successive waves of new immigrants to service the tourism industry, many of them with experience as fishermen or as laborers on boats. With the decline in yield of fisheries worldwide, it was only a matter of time until the marine wealth of Galapagos would be rediscovered.

Timing is everything...

Three principal factors set the stage for increased commercial fisheries in Galapagos in the early 1990's:
  1. Daily air flights carried tourists and provisions to the islands, returning to the continent with much available, but expensive, cargo space. High-value seafoods could now reach the continent quickly.

  2. Local banking and increased money flow accompanied improved communications with the continent, facilitating efforts to market Galapagos' marine products.

  3. Depletion of fisheries resources on coastal South America in the 1980's and 1990's sent scores of savvy continental entrepreneurs scurrying to seek their fortune in Galapagos. Striking at a historic moment when various goverment institutions were jockeying for control of Galapagos' coastal waters, the entrepreneurs literally set up camp in the seldom patrolled "wild west" of the islands, along the Bolivar Channel.

First reports.

Responding to reports by scientists at a remote field site, in June, 1992 a research expedition searched the shorelines of Fernandina island along the Bolivar Channel in the western Galapagos for evidence of invasion by the black rat (Rattus rattus)

Image of research vessel No black rats were found, but the expedition discovered intense activity by sea cucumber fishermen who were camped without permission on land in very sensitive, restricted areas of Galapagos National Park. Garbage and human wastes littered abandoned campsites in this formerly pristine volcanic

Director and researcher discuss situation Researchers informed the authorities of the location of fishermen's camps on Fernandina and Isabela islands.

Scene on Ecuadorian Armada gun ship '27 de febrero' Headed by National Park authorities, a second expedition set out on the Ecuadorian Armada gun ship "27 de febrero" to investigate. Journalist Freddy Ehlers, originator of the popular Ecuadorian TV weekly "La Television", accompanied the expedition. His powerful documentary on the activities of the "pepineros" in Galapagos National Park would soon shock the nation, which thought of the islands as inviolate.

Pepinero supply boat As the expedition sailed up Bolivar Channel, the calm marine landscape was suddenly rent by the frothing scream of a "fibra". This high-powered fiberglass boat was ferrying supplies from the only town on Isabela, Puerto Villamil, to a remote "pepinero" camp. The Ecuadorian Marines raced to capture the boat for inspection.

The crew had no life jackets, no water supply, no permit from the Armada to enter these waters, and no protection in case the small boat had capsized in the frequently rough waters of Bolivar Channel. No thought had been given to the well- being of the young crew.

Fishing boats As the "27 de febrero" proceeded north up Bolivar Channel, scores of white specks came into view, each a dive boat hunting the shallows for sea cucumbers. The Marines summoned them to the gun boat for inspection, looking concerned when they realized that they were out- numbered by "pepineros" at least 3 to 1.

Pepinero dive boat The divers were poorly equipped, wearing only remnants of poorly fitting neoprene dive suits. They had only a paint compressor to supply their air underwater, thus risking serious lung disease from the greasy, unfiltered compressed air. Several of the divers displayed symptoms of the "bends" (nitrogen sickness): aching joints, disorientation and dizziness.

Pepinero camp on Isabela island.

A team including representatives from the Armada, National Park Service, Research Station, and journalist Freddy Ehlers set out to inspect the sea cucumber processing camp on shore.

Pepino fishing boat with armed navy guard Arriving on Isabela, how would we be received? The marines telegraphed their concern and uncertainty by keeping their firearms at-the-ready.

Tin hut used by pepineros Once past the dilapidated "mother" boats in the narrow bay, the first visible structure was a rickety hut of tin and poles lashed together over the mangrove roots on the shoreline.

Emanating creaks and strange gurgling sounds, the structure resembled, in its construction and peculiarly complex odors, the shanty towns of impoverished coastal communities on the continent. A light breeze suddenly disentangled the unmistakable odors of sweat, boiling sea cucumbers, and partially combusted gas.

Pepinero camp and supplies We asked the fishermen for a tour. They obliged, scarely masking the pride in their accomplishment. In just 3 days, they had erected a bustling base camp for some 50 fishermen and assistants, including sea cucumber processors, stove operators, carpenters to make and repair drying racks for the sea cucumbers, boat handlers, and even women and youths who prepared food and attended to the needs of all.

The fishermen had even written a "Pepinero Song", which Ecuadorians soon heard performed on Freddy Ehlers' "La Television" program. The song described how hard their lives were, "working for the boss who makes all the money", and lamented how their "sisters work like slaves cooking all day for two cents of pay" at the camps.

Pepinero tent A loose tarpaulin tied to living mangrove branches shaded the women and youths as they cooked for the fishermen and processing crew. Simple benches perched atop stockpiles of propane, bags of rice, sacs of salt, sugar, and other staples. In such conditions, the introduction of exotic pests to remote areas of the islands was nearly assured. Most of the people were not from Galapagos, and seemed unaware of their impact on the fragile surroundings.

Processing sea cucumbers

Sea cucumbers were harvested from the ocean shallows by divers breathing compressed air. Divers said they could harvest up to 500 sea cucumbers per day, although this would be only in areas of relative abundance and with good visibility in calm waters where the support boats could enter -- conditions which were relatively limited, in the Bolivar Channel. Harvested sea cucumbers spoil easily, so must be processed shortly after collection. Hence, the use of fast boats to expedite processing soon after harvest.

Sea cucumbers cooking Sea cucumbers are boiled in vats, causing the animals to expel their gut and any contents. Heat is provided either by gas, as seen here, or by wood.

Sea cucumbers cooling. Cooked sea cucumbers are scooped into crates, allowed to drain and cool.

Some "pepineros" cut mangroves to stoke their cooking fires, removing potential nesting sites for the rare Galapagos mangrove finch. Others brought wood from elsewhere to cook the sea cucumbers, raising the threat of introducing wood-infesting insects to remote areas of Galapagos National Park.

ALT Cooked sea cucumbers were immersed in hypersaline solution for serveral days to preserve the tissues. The bamboo floor of this cooking shanty perches precariously over mangrove roots in a formerly peaceful coastal lagoon on Isabela island.

 Propane cooking setup above bay waters: Galapagos sea lions and marine iguanas scatter in surprise when boiling water from cooking vats or hypersaline pickling water is dumped onto their resting places among the mangrove roots, below the processing shanty.

ALT Salt-soaked sea cucumbers are spread onto drying racks and laid out on the hot, black lava to dry. Drying takes several days, and if incomplete, the final product spoils and is not marketable. Workers collect the drying sea cucumbers at night, shoveling them into plastic barrels to avoid fog and dew. A surprisingly large proportion of the sea cucumbers processed in Galapagos were dried inadequately, and so were wasted.

Later, in 1994, merchants used the issue of time needed to dry and process sea cucumbers to their advantage, and successfully pressured Fisheries officials into extending the harvest and marketing season after it had been officially closed due to over-harvest. Such decisions created distrust in the management of fisheries, and eventually led to civil unrest.

Sea cucumbers drying in a field All available space surrounding the camp is occupied by drying racks. Based on scientific estimates of the average size and number of sea cucumbers per drying rack at this time, there are well over 10,000 sea cucumbers in this view. This camp had over 50,000 sea cucumbers drying on any given day.

Researcher counts racks of sea cucumbers Researcher counts sea cucumbers on drying racks. This view shows the average number of sea cucumbers shipped to the continent from this camp every daily -- approximately 10,000 sea cucumbers.

Environmental impact?

What was the impact on the marine environment? Sea cucumbers have long been called the "earthworms of the sea" because they perform a function similar to that of earthworms, consuming and grinding materials into finer particles that bacteria can then break down, in the great nutrient cycles of the seas. Elsewhere in the world, over-harvest of sea cucumbers has caused hardening of the sea floor, eliminating habitat for other bottom-dwelling organisms. Recovery may take 50 years or even more. Researchers at the Charles Darwin Research Station and elsewhere are working to better understand these marine systems, just as the islands' conservation and resource managers are working with local fishermen and the national government of Ecuador to protect the coastal waters for future generations. Theirs is a noble enterprise.

Conservation in the Galapagos islands is a work in progress.

We must never forget that.